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USC Viterbi’s Information Sciences Institute turns 40

by Eric Mankin
Information Sciences Institute 40th Anniversary Celebration
Photo: USC president C. L. Max Nikias with ISI executive director Herb Schorr, left, and ISI assistant director Joe Sullivan (Photo/Steve Cohn)

USC’s Information Sciences Institute (ISI) marked its 40th anniversary on April 26 with an afternoon seminar on its groundbreaking technological achievements and an evening of celebration.

Founded in 1972, ISI has played a pivotal role in conceiving, designing and implementing the Internet and its predecessor, the Department of Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) communication system known as ARPANET. The research center, part of the USC Viterbi School of Engineering, currently has 350 researchers and support staff working at its headquarter facilities in Marina del Rey, as well as Arlington, Va.

“ISI has been an outstanding creative force in all aspects of digital science throughout the four decades since its founding, starting with its role in the invention of the Internet and continuing through its current pioneering work in quantum computing,” said USC Viterbi dean Yannis C. Yortsos. “We at the USC Viterbi School of Engineering are proud to be the home of such an extraordinary institution.”

Anniversary festivities began with a detailed symposium highlighting ISI’s history and achievements hosted by USC Viterbi senior associate dean of engineering Herb Schorr, a former IBM executive who has served as ISI executive director since 1988.

During the symposium, USC Viterbi professor emeritus George Bekey, founder of the university’s biomedical engineering department, recounted ISI’s birth during the week of April 17, 1972, when he was approached by ISI founder Keith Uncapher and two fellow RAND Corp. employees in search of a research university home.

Uncapher and his colleagues had been told by UCLA that the creation of such a research facility would take 15 months. In a matter of days, Uncapher met with then-Dean Zohrab Kaprielian, who presented the concept of ISI to USC trustees, promptly leading to the leasing of office space in the Marina del Rey building that still houses ISI.

Rod Beckstrom, president and CEO of the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, spoke about ISI’s intimate role in numerous aspects of the Internet’s evolution, noting ISI’s work in developing the now universal Domain Name System (the first address created was isi.edu) and administering the Request for Comments series, the written record of the emerging Internet’s technical structure and operation.

Other speakers were president and CEO of the Corporation for National Research Initiatives Robert Kahn, formerly of DARPA and co-author of TCP/IP and the basic ARPANET protocols, who discussed ISI’s role in the development of computing technology; William Sutherland, chip creation executive at BBN Technologies, Sun Microsystems Inc., and Palo Alto Research Center Inc., who lauded ISI’s unique MOSIS experimental microchip production system, a key tool for worldwide chip designers; and William Swartout, a pivotal leader in PC development and former director of technology at the USC Institute for Creative Technologies, who recounted ISI’s contributions to artificial intelligence, a field that has expanded into key areas of fundamental and revolutionary research.

At a celebratory anniversary dinner at Loews Santa Monica Hotel, USC president C. L. Max Nikias delivered his own tribute to ISI.

Nikias noted that an off-site research facility that began as a single grant now attracts nearly $60 million each year for basic and applied research. Above all else, the president emphasized the contributions of one person: ISI executive director Schorr, who will step down from his post this year.

ISI’s achievements, Nikias said, “reflect Herb’s multidisciplinary vision for ISI. He has always understood the value of reaching across disciplines, of fostering new connections.”

Nikias also focused on the close connection between ISI and USC, exemplified by the shuttle that carries students and faculty between the two campuses five times a day. Addressing the nearly 200 ISI staffers who filled the ballroom: “You bring great honor to the university, and we are so proud to be your home.”

Guests at the event enjoyed a USC Viterbi film highlighting ISI’s current achievements in the fields of cybersecurity, satellite design, microchip functionality, grid, super and quantum computing, and other areas of information science.

Peter Diamandis, chairman and CEO of the X PRIZE Foundation, served as the evening’s keynote speaker, sharing his own bold experiences in innovation as creator of the $10 million X PRIZE for commercial space flight.

Yortsos concluded the program with a set of awards that illustrated the passion of the ISI community and a stability that has encouraged continual collaboration and achievement.

Recognizing staffers by duration of service, Yortsos named 68 employees with more than 10 years of service, 26 with more than 20 years and 10 employees with more than 30 years.

The evening closed with music by the Hidden Talent Trio, led by ISI’s Carl Kesselman, professor and director of the USC Center for Grid Technologies.

“We are now beginning to witness that ISI and USC are becoming an attractive force to the U.S. computer science community,” ISI founder Uncapher wrote in 1973. “I believe that we will be very successful in attracting very, very good computer people.”

Those who attended ISI’s celebrations witnessed for themselves how Uncapher’s dreams have been fulfilled.

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